Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Asteya (अस्तेय) - Non-stealing
written by Marlene Schmitt
“asteya-pratiṣṭhāyāṁ sarvaratn-opasthānam” Yoga Sutra 2.37
“Everything comes to us if we do not appropriate things that do not belong to us. One who wants nothing will get everything.”
Self-Reflection on Asteya & Cultural Appropriation
When I was preparing to write the focus of the month about Asteya, one of the yamas, or ethical restraints, of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s yoga sutras translated as “non-stealing”, there was one disturbing thought that stuck with me and I couldn’t let go: Do I have the right to speak about this topic?
I am a white privileged, born and grown up in Germany and making a living from Yoga, a sacred Indian practice.
There have been many moments on my journey as a yoga practitioner as well as a teacher and studio owner, when I asked myself - do I even have the right to share an ancient, Indian practice? Is what I am teaching “enough” to call it Yoga? Do we have the right to open up a yoga studio in the middle of Berlin? Questions that bugged me for many years and yet I still don’t have a clear answer to them and probably there is not one answer to them after all.
But what I know and what I see is that with the boom of yogic practices in the West, Yoga has been dramatically culturally appropriated. Frequently Yoga has been reduced to a fitness regime, ignoring the fact that Yoga consists of far more than poses we deem photo-worthy, just for the sake of profit. Sanskrit symbols or figures of ancient yogic scriptures have been taken out from its original context, printed onto shirts, yoga mats or posters, to boost sales. Styles were created, like dog yoga, beer yoga, and similar gimmicky styles misusing the word “yoga” because it’s popular and it sells well in the Western world.
This disrespectful way of “using” Yoga has to stop and in order to do this we want to invite us all (including myself) to reflect on the way we treat, practice and share Yoga. If you are teaching yoga yourself, ask yourself, am I giving credits to the roots of the practice? Is what I am teaching truthful to the essence of the yogic practice? How can I thank and give back to the culture that has given birth to Yoga?
If you are practicing yoga, ask yourself, are the products and classes I consume aligned with the yogic practice? Are my teachers truthfully sharing their knowledge with respect to its origin? How can I thank and give back to the culture that has given birth to Yoga?
The topic of cultural appropriation is very sensitive and vast, which we don’t want to limit to a few written lines or a few weeks during the year. It is our wish that we start a conversation, and that we start to question the ways we have been profiting from this practice in the West. In order to do this, we as Yoga on the Move, will invite Indian teachers to share their practice with us in the following weeks, give a voice to those deeply engaged with the topic of cultural appropriation to learn from them and to reflect our own role in this profound social problem.
The meaning of Asteya
Asteya, translated as “non-stealing”, is by far not limited to the physical act of taking something away from someone else. It already starts with the mere desire to have something that doesn’t belong to us. Even taking something immaterial from someone by being unconscious is disrespectful in regards to Asteya. For example if you show up late, you are stealing someone's time. If you are being obnoxious without a reason, you are stealing someone's peace of mind. If you abuse your power, you are stealing someone's personal power. If you allow thoughts that don't serve you to consume your mind, you're stealing your own potential to thrive.
Many traditional Indian texts, including the Sutras, the Mahabarata, the Upanishads and the Vedas mention Asteya. Even. Gandhi considered the practice of ‘non-stealing’ as one of his ’11 Vows’, in which he expanded it to mankind's greed and craving for artificial needs. Swami Sivananda also explains that the mere ‘desire or want is the cause for stealing’.
The root cause of Asteya is the belief “I’m not enough….”
The need to steal essentially arises because of a lack of faith in ourselves. The moment we feel a sense of ‘lack’ – desire, want and greed arises. We begin to look for something to fill the empty sensation of lack, and often feel like everyone around us has what we want.
“The need to steal essentially arises because of a lack of faith in ourselves to be able to create what we need by ourselves.”
Lack, insecurity, envy, greed, feeling of being incomplete, all boils down to this feeling that there is something missing. Yet by continuously practicing each aspect of yoga on and off the mat, including the Niyamas & Yamas we will eventually come to realize that we are enough within ourselves and always have been.
"Once you realize that the source of all solutions that you seek outside yourself are always present within you, asteya naturally happens." - Yogi Amrit Desai
Asteya on the mat
1. Honor time - If rushing and tardiness have become a habit—you may be checking many things off your list and not deeply experiencing any of them. The underlying feeling may be one of lack and scarcity. Often when we’re operating on the premise that there isn’t enough time, we’re more likely to cram a day or practice as full as possible. Yet full attention is what makes something rich, not necessarily the activity itself. It could be said that we are addicted to doing. The belief that more is better. The lesson of asteya is that there is already enough.
Try to arrive on time to class to set up and settle in.
Consider skipping one more vinyasa and slow down and do less instead.
Try to move swiftly through the flow without the feeling of hurrying into the next pose.
2. Appreciate imperfection - Many of us take on enormous pressure to meet standards of appearance and status that are unnatural and unattainable, instead of appreciating what makes us unique. This is in direct conflict with Asteya. When we try to conceal or camouflage parts of ourselves or morph into what we think someone wants, we deny the reality and beauty of who we are. Asteya reminds us to claim and even appreciate the ways we are different and to meet one another with openness and respect.
Once you notice yourself comparing yourself to other students, try to imagine everyone in the room as a different piece of fruit. You wouldn’t wonder why a banana doesn’t look more like a grape. Because every body is put together differently and has a unique history, we look different in the poses. When we get caught up in what someone else looks like, we miss out on what’s happening for us.
"Make the pose fit your body, not your body fit the pose."
3. Be present in the moment - When you’re not where you are, you steal from yourself the experience of being alive in that moment. If you do that most of the time, you will miss your life.
To minimize stimulation and distraction during class, try to keep your eyes closed or look at neutral objects in the room (a wall, your mat, or the floor) rather than at other people.
In each pose and transition, bring your attention back to the feelings in your body and the experience of breath, over and over. Like training a puppy, be kind, gentle, and consistent.
When the mind does wander off, relish the feeling of coming back. Get a felt sense of what it’s like to come back into your body and the joy of knowing the moment just as it is.
“Be where you are . . . otherwise you will miss most of your life.” - Buddha
The practice of Asteya asks us to look at where we hoard or have greed and reminds us of the nonmaterial richness of our lives. It engages us with the perfectly imperfect reality of the moment. Practicing Asteya on the mat will help you explore the small ways you withhold care and respect from yourself. The result is a deeper and more honest relationship with life that no one can take away from you.
Asteya off the mat, in your daily life
Don’t take what is not yours without permission
Honor the boundaries of your family and friends
Practice gratitude for all the beauty in your life
Practice generosity by giving freely to those who may not have the resources that you have.
Give credit where credit is due
Notice your own thoughts of not being enough when they arise and release them, by remembering your uniqueness
Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel bad about yourself
What are your thoughts on Asteya and cultural appropriation? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or discuss this topic with your friends.
Further reading & sources